Sayrie: Withstanding the White gaze

A few years ago, I was invited to perform at a Black History Month event in Kalamazoo. I wrote a poem celebrating Blackness. I wrote the piece with the intention that the delivery was to an all or majority Black audience. However, when I got there, there were exhibits laid out and I saw many, many non-Black peering faces. My heart sank, I had prepared for the wrong audience. How could they relate? What would they think of me? I had messed up!

It’s silly to think about it now because it is my right to celebrate any part of myself at any time, but then…I panicked. Too many times I have panicked and adjusted to assimilate. I have wasted so much of my time and talent centering the “White gaze.” A term coined by Toni Morrison to explain the concept of catering to and living under the constant scrutiny of white supremacy. 

It is the ethnocentric lens through which all behaviors pass. A tool used to measure anything to its proximity to Whiteness. The gold standard. Including behaviors, languages, bodies, literally everything. A close-minded approach, and standard we have been forced to uphold for survival’s sake.

In many respects I had performed for the White gaze as I had been trained to do. In retrospect, respectability politics have played too big of a part in my life.

It has not only played a part in my communications, but also my associations. Where I chose to work, live, and send my children to school. Also in what I wore, how I styled my hair, and the goals I set for myself. I worked so hard for freedom and have never really been free. In literature I admired the radicals and despised the “good ones.” Yet here I was.

I have invested so much into self-suppression, and respectability politics. There were “rewards” but there was also a lot of additional work. For example, everyone wants you as the mediator. Somehow in 2020 I became the liaison between politicians and the Black Three Rivers community. These were not people I have sat and had meals with or that have advocated with me side by side. These people came out of the woodworks and had to ask someone else that I barely knew for my phone number. They were calling me to strengthen their campaign. It was mentally and physically draining, only to be referred to as “one of the good ones” in the end. Next campaign season “you ain’t gotta worry bout me, yooouuu ain’t gotta worry bout me!”

It has taken work to unlearn what I was taught as a means of survival. I know this experience is not uniquely lived by me. As people of color, we face enough external oppression and should not feel obligated to suppress ourselves at every turn. Everyone should be comfortable to exist freely in their own skin. Refusing to conform within reason is a good place to start. Showing up to the workplace in cultural hairstyles, or cultural patterns should be deemed professional. As an additional step, policies should be reviewed and updated to align with the value the company places on diversity.

Unless they don’t?

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.